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The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Today, we begin consulting on the reform of the electricity market. This programme sits at the heart of my Department's mission: to deliver secure, affordable and low-carbon energy. The case for reform is clear. We need significant investment in our energy infrastructure. As old coal and nuclear plants shut down, and demand for electricity grows, we must build the next generation of power stations. The electricity that they deliver must be both affordable and sustainable, helping us to meet our emissions reduction targets and keep the lights on.
The current energy market has served us well, but it cannot deliver long-term investment on the scale that we need, nor can it give consumers the best deal. Left untouched, it would lock carbon emissions into the system for decades to come. Investors and boardrooms around the world want to know whether the UK is a good place to do energy business, and today we are setting out our plans to make it one of the best places to do energy business.
The challenges and the opportunities are huge. Put simply, we face growing demand, shrinking supply and ambitious emissions reductions targets: demand for electricity could double by 2050 as we decarbonise the economy; 30% of our electricity must come from renewables by 2020-up from 7% today-to meet our contribution to the European Union's renewable energy target; and in the next 10 years, a quarter of our existing power plants will need to be replaced, as nuclear and coal plants reach the end of their lives.
Without action, we will face a real and growing threat to the security of our supply. The reserve margin of spare generating capacity will fall over the next decade and the risk of interruptions to our energy supplies will rise, so we must build the next generation of power stations, and act to ensure there will be enough reserve capacity to meet our needs. Together with renewables, we will need new gas-fired power stations and new nuclear plant. We must attract more than £100 billion of investment in new power stations and grid connections by 2020-that is double the investment rate of the past decade.
We must rebalance our market framework to attract investment in the right technologies. At the moment, there is a bias towards low-cost, low-risk fossil fuel generation. Renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage all have relatively high up-front capital costs, but a more diverse, lower-carbon energy mix is better for our energy security, better for our economy and better for our planet.
Some measures have already delivered investment in new low-carbon generation-the renewables obligation and the EU emissions trading system-but we must go further and faster. To secure reliable, affordable low-carbon electricity, we must change the market structure. We must create the right framework to ramp up power generation and secure our supply and we must deliver cleaner, greener electricity for the 2020s and beyond.
Today, we are proposing new incentives to drive investment while protecting the rules for investments already made. The focus will shift permanently from
conventional fossil fuel-fired electricity to low-carbon technologies-renewables, nuclear and cleaner fossil fuels. Our preferred package of reforms is designed to strike a balance between the best possible deal for consumers and giving existing players and new entrants in the energy sector the certainty they need to raise investment.
Reform will be gradual. We want to reassure industry that the rules for existing investments will be protected. By consulting on a process and principles for the transition to new market arrangements we aim to minimise uncertainty. The competitive market will remain at the centre of our energy policy, but the four elements of the reform package announced today will change incentives in the market and ensure both the security and decarbonisation of our power supply system while minimising costs to consumers.
First, there will be greater long-term certainty about the additional cost of running polluting plant, to make lower carbon investment more attractive. Proposals set out in the Treasury consultation to support the carbon price directly tackle the core problem, putting a better price on emissions, increasing the cost of fossil fuel-based generation and strengthening the carbon price for UK electricity generators.
Secondly, greater revenue certainty for low-carbon generation will make clean energy investment more attractive still. Through the proposed contract for difference feed-in tariff, the Government will guarantee greater revenue certainty for low carbon in the form of a top-up payment if the wholesale price of electricity is below the feed-in tariff and a potential clawback for consumers if wholesale prices go above the contracted tariff.
Thirdly, there will be additional payments to encourage the construction of reserve plants or demand reduction measures to ensure the lights stay on. Capacity payments will create an adequate safety cushion of capacity as the amount of intermittent and inflexible low-carbon generation increases.
Fourthly, there will be a back-stop to limit how much carbon any new coal-fired power stations emit. An emissions performance standard will reinforce the existing requirement that no new coal is built without carbon capture and storage.
Together, those four reforms make good on our commitments in the coalition's programme for government. They will make the UK a prime location for low-carbon energy investment. They will ensure our energy supply is cleaner and more secure. They will protect the consumer-whereas prices will rise in the medium term, the additional impact of the reform packages will be small, and by 2030 consumer bills will be lower than they would have been if we had not reformed the market. They will lay the foundations for the sustainable economy of the future, bringing jobs up and down the supply chain.
The consultation that opens today invites everyone to tell us whether they think the preferred package of reforms is the right one and to provide the evidence to support their views. Final recommendations will be published in a White Paper in late spring 2011, and the reforms will be introduced before the end of this Parliament. We are also reviewing the role of Ofgem and the energy regulatory framework and today we are publishing the Government's response to the call for evidence on the terms of the review.
We have a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild our electricity market, rebuild investor confidence and rebuild our power stations. Like privatisation before it, this will be a seismic shift, securing investment in cleaner, greener power and delivering secure, affordable and low-carbon energy for decades to come.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement and for early notice that it would be made-ahead, even, of Government Back Benchers, for which I am grateful.
Let me be clear at the outset that the Opposition believe that the programme is absolutely necessary to secure energy for the future, and we will support fair and sensible mechanisms for reform. We agree with the Secretary of State that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right and we hope that we can work with the Government and that, for their part, they will take on board the Opposition's comments as they consult.
The issues that the Government must tackle are fourfold: security of supply, meeting renewable energy targets, finding the crucial investment for energy infrastructure-some £200 billion-and, as we heard in Question Time, keeping energy prices reasonable. It is crucial that the Government put in place the mechanisms to make new low-carbon investment attractive and they must bridge the looming energy gap without a rush for unabated fossil fuel generation. I am heartened by some of what the Secretary of State has said, but the Government must also provide energy security across a balanced and diverse energy portfolio and they must provide fairness and affordability for consumers.
We face this big challenge together, but we must not allow the consumer to bear the whole burden. The Secretary of State has dangled cheaper prices from 2030 in front of us today-jam tomorrow-but will he provide his modelling so we can be sure that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that energy prices today are being tackled, too? We cannot allow increased energy costs to be an excuse for increased profit at a cost to our constituents.
The Government must seize this opportunity and act now to give investors the certainty they need and to meet the necessary timescales. Today, the Government have confirmed that the green investment bank is still under review. The Secretary of State has assured us that the Government are committed to low-carbon growth, but the question is: can he do it on time?
This is not the time for delay or dithering. Now is the time for action, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deem 2011 to be the year of decision. He rightly pointed out in his statement that if we do not take prompt action, "The reserve margin of spare generating capacity will fall over the next decade and the risk of interruptions to our energy supplies will rise." Questions remain about whether new nuclear can be built on time and at the pace required and whether carbon capture and storage can be proven on an industrial scale and commercially applied to all fossil fuels on time. We also need to know the details about the funding of projects 2, 3 and 4. We also need to know whether agreements on energy storage with Norway or others will be on time, again, and sufficient in scale.
There are other questions, too. Although I recognise that many of them cannot be given definitive answers, I know that the Secretary of State's officials will have modelled different scenarios. I ask, in the spirit of transparency and open debate, that the Secretary of State share as much as possible of his modelling and risk analysis for plugging the energy gap in the next few years with the House and with the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change so that we can have a fully informed debate.
The Secretary of State today stresses a UK commitment to 30% of electricity from renewables by 2020. His commitment is clear and we support him. However, has he assessed the mood of the coalition's colleagues in the European Parliament, who often seem to be at sixes and sevens and are certainly not four-square behind his stance. He is, we know, as we heard earlier this week, working closely with European partners. On Monday, he assured the House, with some feeling, that the Government are united on their position in Europe, but what is the true picture?
The statement is on electricity market reform, but given that we enter this winter with the worse gas storage for many years, does the Secretary of State also intend to make proposals on gas infrastructure and storage; and, if so, when?
Finally, will the Secretary of State give certainty to industry and to people who are already paying inflated energy bills that this programme will be enough to encourage energy companies to invest in the UK, to create the jobs that this country needs and, importantly, to protect customers from unaffordable energy bills?
Chris Huhne: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and particularly for the helpful way in which she couched them. Of course we will be open to Opposition comments on the details of this matter through the consultation period and further on into the legislation. We shall need £110 billion of investment in electricity infrastructure and a total of £200 billion in energy, and one of the most valuable things we can tell investors is that there is, although I do not want to overstate it, substantial cross-party consensus between the coalition parties and the Opposition. That is very valuable in attracting big foreign investors in particular because it means that in the period over which there can be a payback of investments, which might be 20 years, foreign investors can be assured that there will be real stability of policy. I very much value that consensus and very much want to work with the hon. Lady to make sure it is there.
Let me deal with the hon. Lady's concerns about consumers, which are absolutely appropriate. We have to make sure that business consumers and households in Britain get the best possible deal in supplies of energy-in this case, electricity. A fundamental part of the policy proposal that I hope she will welcome is that by providing investors with the certainty of a feed-in tariff, with a contract for difference, we will attract investment from the big six electricity companies and attract into the market other players-new entrants-to make it more competitive. We will also unlock the pools of capital that various Members have been concerned will not be available without this framework. It is very much part of our thinking that in trying to deal with the
underlying problem of a more competitive market we should get more players into the market, because that will ultimately give the best assurance to consumers that we will get the best possible deal.
The hon. Lady asked about the shorter-term view. I made it clear in my statement that this package will deliver lower-cost electricity for consumers than would otherwise be the case on a 2030 view. We will redo the estimates for overall energy policy in the annual energy statement. As far as I can see, on the current basis there is no reason to expect that to change. In the summer, we said that with the overall package of policies we had set out, if one takes into account the energy efficiency packages and the likely reduction in bills as a result, consumers would pay about 1% more in 2020 than would otherwise be the case. That figure involves a fundamental assumption that the oil price will be $80 a barrel at that time, with a corresponding gas price, but oil prices might be substantially higher; obviously, spot oil prices are substantially higher today. The break-even point for consumers is $100 a barrel, and if the price goes north of that the policy framework we are setting out will leave British consumers paying less than if they were reliant, over the relevant period, on the volatility of the world oil and gas markets. That is fundamental. We are dealing with conditions of considerable uncertainty about the future, particularly in the oil and gas markets. We have heard today that the US Attorney-General is taking a case against BP as a result of what happened in the gulf of Mexico. We know that there are rising risks and costs in extracting fossil fuels and we have to take that into account when we set a policy that can protect British consumers from the vagaries that might come.
The green investment bank is going to be a clear part of our thinking in dealing with the enormous investment challenge, and Ministers are reviewing the exact market failures that we are attempting to address with the bank. It is a long-term project and the most important thing, when we talk about decarbonising the UK economy, is not to get up and running for 1 January next year a green investment bank that might be half-baked, but to get it right. This institution has to be with us for the long term, right through to 2050, providing lending to help decarbonise the economy over the long haul, so I would much rather get it right than do it early and get it wrong.
I take on board the hon. Lady's point about the need to deliver. I shall not rub salt in the Opposition's wounds about the 13 years they were in power, but I remind her that we have inherited the position of being 25th out of 27 EU member states on renewable energy. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) might chunter about that, but these are the facts. I am not making any comments about them, but am merely saying that we are 25th out of 27 EU countries and we need to improve that position.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) also asked us to make available our modelling basis and I am very happy to do that. Indeed, the models that we used for the 2050 pathways study are already available on the Department's website. Any Member of the House will find that function very user-friendly; it is Professor David Mackay's favourite executive toy. Users can decide they want more renewables, a little less nuclear, a little more nuclear or a little more
clean coal, put the change in and find out what the consequences would be. We aim to be extremely open and transparent in our whole process.
On the European Parliament, the reality is that we will determine these matters in this Parliament, not the European Parliament. I note that we have an overwhelming majority, judging by the recent vote on the regulatory justification for nuclear, for the sort of package that we have set out.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate, given what the Speaker has said about short statements, that the Secretary of State's answer to a single question has been longer than the original statement?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Strictly speaking, that is not a point of order, but while I am on my feet let me say what I was going to say when the Secretary of State sat down. I am sure that the House is very grateful for his long and full answer, but I sincerely hope that we will revert to short questions and short answers so that everyone can get in.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that when the new measures are in place, we will require long-term regulatory stability if we are to encourage an attractive investment environment in order to decarbonise our energy market and keep the lights on at an affordable price?
Chris Huhne: I absolutely agree that we require long-term regulatory stability. That is one reason why we have been at pains to say that we will not change the terms on which investors relied when they made past investments. We want them to believe that when we put this framework in place they will be able to rely on a similar assurance of stability.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I strongly welcome the content of the statement on the future construction of energy markets and how they will underpin the move towards a low-carbon energy economy. The Secretary of State has said that there is currently a bias towards low-cost, low-risk fossil fuel generation, but it is more than a bias. The present build and planning permissions suggest that there is more gas in the pipeline than would cover the gap for reserve generation over the next period. The third of the four pillars he has mentioned involves capacity payments: how does he intend to fund those payments, and will he be able to direct them to ensure that reserve capacity is not overwhelmingly gas, as appears to be the case currently?
Clearly we want to have low carbon sources of supply, but I have made it clear that we are intending one of the three remaining demonstration projects on carbon capture and storage to be a gas project. Given the development of unconventional gas, there is a possibility that gas will provide a much more sustainable long-term source of supply than people had thought until recently. In those circumstances-carbon
capture and storage applied to gas-gas may have a very important role in the long term, not just in the short term. Otherwise, I entirely agree. Capacity payments will be made on the basis of encouraging peaking plant, to deal with the ad break in "Coronation Street" when we all turn on our kettles, and to offset the intermittency problems that occasionally arise-the nightmare of the four or five cold still days in February when the wind turbines are not going and we need back-up capacity. The capacity payments will inevitably be made by consumers from their payments, but they will provide us with the assurance of supply that we have been proud to have in this country for a long time.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): There is, unfortunately, something of an uncertainty paradox, in that measures that seek to create some certainty in the market necessitate of themselves a period of uncertainty. That being the case, will the Secretary of State tell us how long energy investors will have certainty once his reforms have been implemented?
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. When he reads the documentation we have tabled, he will see that we are at great pains to ensure that investors have the very clear message-not least because of recent experience in some other member states of the European Union-that the incentives that have been in place will be grandfathered. They can continue to rely on that. We shall minimise the amount of uncertainty, which is important not only to honour our past obligations but also if we want investors to believe in our future obligations. We have to be prepared to stand behind what we have said in the past, and we intend that to be the case. We will minimise the amount of uncertainty in joining up the two regimes, but we are of the view that we have to reform the electricity market to bring forward the low carbon and secure supplies that we need.
In terms of nuclear energy, we are talking about a subsidy by another name, and that is a major change in policy. I have real concerns-as will a number of other MPs when they come back in the new year-about supporting nuclear energy in the long term, when we have always argued that it should not be subsidised. What is in this for coal? Coal has played a major part in this country's economic security, so what part will it play in carbon capture in the future? What projects will be going ahead and when?
There are two parts to the hon. Gentleman's question. The first was whether the proposals are a subsidy for nuclear. I could not be clearer: this is a subsidy for low-carbon sources of energy generation. There is no subsidy specifically to nuclear. That is fundamental. [ Interruption. ] No; this is about low carbon. Our vision in the long term is that we should be able to rely on the market as much as possible to determine which sources of energy are the best for the British consumer. We want companies to make proposals, and-on the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question-I very much hope that they will be on clean coal. We have an enormous amount of coal in this country that I want us to be able to use, but we cannot use it unless we can
decarbonise it. We cannot use it and meet our carbon emissions targets unless we make a success of carbon capture and storage, which is exactly why I was so pleased that, despite a very tough spending round, we managed to secure £1 billion to make sure we have the first commercial-scale coal carbon capture and storage plant in the world. I hope genuinely that it will unlock a whole new future for coal as a source of low carbon electricity generation.
Chris Huhne: We would aim to get the White Paper out in the spring and legislation landed in this place before the end of the Session, although realistically it would probably have to be a carry-over. I hope very much that we shall have legislation in place, and therefore the market system in place, in 2012.
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North) (Lab): I welcome the broad thrust of the statement. Does the Secretary of State agree that notwithstanding the beneficial effects of energy efficiency measures on prices, there are three reasons why prices are likely to rise in the medium term? The first is the new investment we require. The second is the climate change measures, which are vital, and the third is the dramatic global demand for energy over the next 30 years, which could go up by 30% or 40%. The only weakness in the statement that I can see is the social policy dimension. It is an irony that we have global warming, yet there are cold homes in Britain. Do we not require a step change in our thinking about social policies of different kinds to protect the most vulnerable during our winters?
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is one of the most informed people in the House on these matters, and he is absolutely right about the long-term drivers for energy markets. The social policy dimension is absolutely crucial for the Government, which is why the green deal puts such an important stress on dealing with the root cause of the problems of fuel poverty. Every winter we have debates in this place about the problems of fuel poverty, yet we have not made enough progress in really tackling the underlying issue, which is the energy inefficiency of the homes of so many people at the bottom of the income distribution. As I said in oral questions, the bills of those who are lucky enough to live in social housing with the decent homes standard could be only a sixth of the bills of owner occupiers or people in private rentals. We have to deal with that.
In the short term, we are committed, for example, to winter fuel payments, cold weather payments and to the continuation of the voluntary discount scheme for bills, and we shall underpin that with our own Warm Homes
discount scheme from the next financial year. We are very aware of the issue and very concerned about it. We intend to make real progress in tackling the underlying causes, not merely providing sticking plasters for the symptoms.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Given the fresh security concerns about nuclear power, its notorious inflexibility and intermittency and the toxic legacy it will leave future generations for 1,000 years, should my right hon. Friend not explore a levy on nuclear to balance any hidden-even if unspecific-windfall subsidy, especially to existing nuclear power stations, which may come about through the reforms he has described?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend knows very well that our policy is no subsidy to nuclear. We are not intending to impose additional levies on nuclear, but the no subsidy policy certainly encompasses the idea that if there are uncertainties they have to be met in the payments made, for example, on waste and decommissioning.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Capacity payments have resolved one problem the Secretary of State had, which was the falling-off of power in 2017-18, but they may have given him another problem, which is that there will now be another dash for gas. Many companies were holding off, with planning permissions in the pipeline or already approved, but they will now proceed with that investment. Can he be sure that the surge in investment for gas will not detract from investment for other renewables? In addition, will he make good an omission in his statement-that the emission performance standards will not apply simply to coal, but will also apply to gas?
Chris Huhne: On the first point, we are consulting on the capacity payments scheme, and obviously the details will need to be worked through, but I believe that it is potentially more radical than the hon. Gentleman may be suggesting. One of the things that can be paid for under the capacity payment scheme is demand-side measures to encourage companies to get consumers to sign up for temporary interruptions in their supply, so they can turn off their fridges and so forth. That is a way of making sure that we need less peaking capacity, which will be very important. That so-called negawatt concept would also be encouraged by capacity payments. I do not believe that a consequence would be a dash for gas.
On the emissions performance standard, we have made it absolutely clear from the beginning-the coalition agreement and beyond-that this is about stopping unabated coal, as the dirtiest of the technologies. We want coal to have a future with carbon capture and storage; we want to see gas plant, if it is built, built with the readiness to apply carbon capture and storage. In the long run there may be a role for gas with carbon capture and storage, but I do not believe that it will have the consequences that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The statement was very clear: there will be new incentives, including for nuclear. That is a subsidy by any other name, and directly contradicts what the Secretary of State said on the "Today" programme in May; it contradicts what he said in his departmental debate in July, when he said that the coalition would allow new nuclear but with no public subsidy; and it contradicts what he said to his own party conference in September. So let me ask him: who does he think will feel most betrayed by this U-turn-he, his party, the coalition or the taxpayer who will undoubtedly have to pick up the tab for the folly of the new generation of nuclear power?
Chris Huhne: I could not be clearer than to say that there is no subsidy here which attaches to nuclear power. The subsidy attaches to low-carbon generation, and whatever the Member's view, the reality is that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source and the subsidy applies to low-carbon generation. Over time I want to see the technologies as they are at the moment compete, so that we can find which are the most effective at providing our consumers with low-cost electricity from low-carbon sources-and the framework will allow us to do that.
Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): How can the Secretary of State ensure that those who want to invest the much-needed billions right now do not get delayed by the consultation period and the navel-gazing that might follow today's statement? For example, if someone has half a billion pounds for a biomass power station today, can they spend it?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend and I have had discussions on the specifics of biomass power stations, and I hope that some of the announcements that the Department has made, for example about bringing forward the review of the incentives for that type of plant, will help. We have also been able to issue some letters of comfort to different investors to try to ensure that they do not have problems with financing projects. I want to minimise the uncertainty that inevitably exists in changing from one regime to another, and make these investments happen as quickly as possible.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentioned volatile oil markets. These reforms will impact on the domestic oil sector in the UK. Can he tell me what he thinks the impact will be, and in doing so, can he tell me what measures he is taking in the next 72 hours to deal with the Christmas oil crisis?
Chris Huhne: I take it that when the hon. Gentleman says "the domestic oil sector," he means the offshore oil and gas sector in its entirety. The prices for that sector are clearly set in a global market, so what we do, although it will be very significant in the electricity sector within the UK, will have a marginal impact on the overall global demand for oil and gas, and therefore on the prospects for our own domestic offshore oil and gas sector.
In the last 72 hours we have been trying to ensure that drivers can work longer-that they can get heating oil to homes that need it. The Energy Minister has been in constant discussions, looking at any way in which we
can ensure that those who need heating oil and are currently short of that oil get it. That is essential. In those discussions, my hon. Friend has been informed about suppliers attempting to ensure that people do not have too much, so that there is enough to go round for everyone.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): The Secretary of State's statement includes some ambitious targets for renewables by 2020. What consideration has he given to planning matters in view of the coalition Government's policy intention to devolve planning to a more local level, and what reassurance can he offer many people who might be concerned that large-scale wind farms could be foisted upon them?
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question because Ministers and senior officials were discussing that subject with representatives of the industry only this week. We had an interesting and useful round-table discussion about exactly that. I do not believe that top-down solutions are the right solutions, and therefore the planning framework that gives local communities real control over what happens in their area is absolutely crucial. At the same time, one message that we heard loud and clear from the industry is that where the industry has brought in local communities, often as co-investors, and where there is a clear benefit for the local community from renewable energy projects, including onshore wind, those projects go ahead. I think that is the right way forward.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I welcome part of the statement, although certainly not the part on nuclear, and I suspect that the devil will lie in the detail of the rest. For example, can the Secretary of State confirm what level of emission performance standards he intends to introduce, and whether both coalition partners remain committed to their pre-election position that any standard will be set at the equivalent of the emissions of a modern gas plant-in other words, 300 to 400 grams of CO2 per kWh?
Chris Huhne: We are consulting on two levels, as the hon. Lady will see in the documentation: 450 and 600 grams. There is inevitably a certain margin of error, but she will see that those are the two points in consultation.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Can I take up the theme of a previous questioner? The history of renewable projects has been bedevilled by planning delays and objections. There is enormous concern in the business community that the new Localism Bill will only reinforce those processes. What representations is the Minister making to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to overcome this, in order that we have joined-up government and give necessary reassurance to the business community?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Some issues can be tackled at national level; one planning issue on onshore wind surrounds aviation impacts and radar, and we should obviously lead that at national level. But I refer him to the answer that I gave previously: local people should be able to determine local planning and, therefore, local impact. If they are on board, and if they are brought into the proposals, renewable projects
go ahead. That is our experience throughout the UK, and that will be the right way forward in getting planning approval for renewable projects.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): On what day in May was the right hon. Gentleman bewitched by the Pied Piper of nuclear power into learning to love a nuclear stealth tax? He and his party used to know that nuclear has never delivered on time or on budget, and that the only new nuclear power station in the world is already three years late and £4 billion over budget. Is it not irrational optimism for him to believe that it will be different here?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman is a careful student of the economics of nuclear power and is well aware of the track record. When he looks at the consultation document, he will see that we are providing greater revenue certainty for all low-carbon sources of energy. We provide no subsidy to construction for any particular sort of energy, and no subsidy to any particular type of energy on the basis of that energy's characteristics. That means, for example, that if someone comes forward wanting to build a new nuclear power station, all the risks of construction-all the risks of delivering on time and to budget-fall on the investor, not the UK Government. If, on that basis, investors come forward, and they assure me that they will, I believe we will have new nuclear power stations, but if there is any delay in construction, that cost will fall to the investor, not to the UK Government.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): First, can I welcome the Secretary of State restating his long-held, principled and consistent commitment to nuclear power? On carbon capture and storage, specifically, can he guarantee my constituents, who eagerly await the Energy Minister's visit in the new year, that there will be no delay at all in the decision, which we expect early in the new year, on the first carbon capture and storage project for Longannet?
Chris Huhne: I believe that my hon. Friend the Energy Minister is making good progress on that. We have made good progress at an official level as well, and there is no reason to anticipate any delay. I very much hope that at the end of our Department's collective term of office, we will go down as being a happening Department that makes things happen. That is what we intend to do with CCS.
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): The Secretary of State has mentioned the significant investment that will be required. Does he recognise that the wave and tidal sector seems somewhat unloved in the UK, because it sees its opportunity overseas? What does he feel he should do about that, and what will he do to ensure that that opportunity goes to people in this country who are prepared to invest?
Chris Huhne: I do not know how the hon. Gentleman got the impression that wave and tidal are unloved. They are certainly not unloved by me, and I want to ensure that we recognise the potential of those technologies, and that they are brought forward commercially as soon as possible. I know, for example, that the tidal stream pilot project on Strangford lough has made good progress, and there are real opportunities, because, although tidal stream power is intermittent, it has one advantage over offshore wind of being predictably intermittent. So, I very much hope that those technologies come on-stream. We have a marine energy programme designed to make that happen, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that this ministerial team wants that to succeed.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): There will be no shortage of either wind or gas while the Secretary of State is in post, that is for sure. On the oil issue, which we discussed earlier, and the long-term impact of his reforms on the domestic oil market, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) mentioned an immediate crisis. We have 72 hours of inclement weather ahead of us, which means that oil supplies will be even more disrupted. What steps will the right hon. Gentleman take immediately to call together oil suppliers to ensure that he sets out clearly the rationing that he thinks appropriate, something to which the Energy Minister previously referred?
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Manufacturers in and around my constituency and elsewhere are doing what they can on a small scale to reduce electricity consumption by taking energy efficiency measures, but what plans do the Government have to encourage that on a large scale as a way of dealing with increased demand in the years ahead?
Chris Huhne: I refer my hon. Friend to our extensive answers on the green deal scheme in Energy and Climate Change oral questions earlier. It will be an ambitious, comprehensive and enormous scheme to ensure that we completely refit our housing stock.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be well aware that the housing with the poorest insulation is in the private rented sector. Will he put pressure on his fellow Ministers in that field to reconsider their decision not to go ahead with landlord registration or other measures, such as using the buying power of housing benefit to force landlords to insulate homes for those vulnerable tenants?
Chris Huhne: I think the hon. Lady will welcome our provisions in the Energy Bill, which is being debated in the other place and will come to us in the new year, because they ensure that, if the private rented sector does not take up the green deal adequately over the period to 2015, first, a tenant will be able to request a green deal installation and not be unreasonably refused, and secondly, there will be regulatory powers to improve the energy efficiency of the private rented sector for F and G-rated homes.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Before the Front Benchers leave the Chamber, I must say that I have not been convinced by the answers that the Secretary of State gave me about dealing with the winter oil crisis. What provisions are there for him to return to the House later this afternoon to make an urgent statement on the detail of how he is dealing with that crisis?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Frankly, it is a matter for the Secretary of State when he chooses to come before this House and the information that he makes available to it; it is not a matter for the Chair. So, the hon. Gentleman has got his point on the record, but at this point in time it is not actually a point of order.
Madam Deputy Speaker: As long as it does not pursue the same point, Mr Brennan, because I have made it quite clear that the information on when the Secretary of State comes before the House is a matter for him.
Kevin Brennan: Taking on board your comments, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether you can advise us on the mechanism for a recall of the House if the crisis should become serious or much worse over the Christmas recess?
Madam Deputy Speaker: I think the Secretary of State and the Government will keep a very close eye on that. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member and knows that any Member can approach the Speaker if he or she believes it necessary for the House to be recalled.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning we were given a written statement on the proposed closure of coastguard offices throughout the UK. Stornoway in my constituency faces losing perhaps 27 jobs relating to a massive sea area. Is there any way in which we can get the Minister to the House, so that Members can cross-examine him and raise their concerns, particularly on the announcement of a 14-week consultation period before Christmas? We need at least an extension of that, and we need the Minister here to answer those points.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I have had no request from a member of the Government with regard to making a statement on that issue. Again, the hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member, and I have a feeling that he will probably find other ways to make sure that he can raise his point and question a Minister.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Points of order are supposed to be directed at the Chair. They are not an additional way of putting questions directly to the Secretary of State. Given that we have had a very full statement and Question Time today, the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of opportunities to do that.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Members have been spotted in recent days wearing such items as denim in the House and catching the Speaker's eye. Could you or the Speaker issue guidance to new Members such as myself on an appropriate dress code for the mother of Parliaments?
Madam Deputy Speaker: There are many things on which the Chair is asked to pass comment; the sartorial elegance of Members is not one of them, and that is not a point of order. As all Members are aware, there is a common dress code for the Chamber, which is to be smart.
Thomas Docherty: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Could the Speaker circulate that dress code to all Members, on both sides of the House, so that we do not have a dress-down Thursday in future?
Madam Deputy Speaker: If you have an issue specifically with Members' dress, you could always speak directly to that Member and advise them. I am sure that they would welcome it, given your own sartorial elegance. But, using the time of the Chair or Mr Speaker to nudge Members in that direction is inappropriate, and I sincerely hope that we can now move on to the rest of today's business.
That this House notes that there are approximately 1,800 park home sites in England and Wales; further notes that current legislation permits a minority of park home site owners to cause great distress, damage to property and danger to health of park home residents; welcomes the Government's intention to lay before the House secondary legislation to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service; but calls on the Government to review the case for establishing a fit and proper person criterion for park home site owners and to bring forward relevant legislation at the earliest opportunity to prevent in particular park home site owners interfering with the sale of a park home without good reason.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting the motion before us for debate today. I am particularly pleased that Back Benchers from across the country have the opportunity to put the case for more protection for a group of very vulnerable people. I also thank the noble Lord Graham for his unstinting support for park home owners over many years.
I particularly thank my constituent, Sonia McColl, from the Silent Woman park home in my constituency for organising and motivating park home owners from all over the country to speak out about their bad experiences. During this year, she organised a massive petition that was presented to 10 Downing street, after which there was a meeting here in the House. More recently, as part of her "justice for park home owners" campaign, well over 100 predominantly older people demonstrated in Old Palace yard with banners, photographs of park homes being torn down and some very good chanting. There was a mass lobby of individual MPs and the day culminated in an extremely well attended meeting in the House, when we sadly heard similar stories from people from all over the country. I thank the Minister for coming and listening on that occasion. I also acknowledge the help and support given by the park home owner associations and welcome the fact that so many MPs are here today to support their constituents. Many other hon. Members have expressed regret that they are unable to attend today. However, they wholeheartedly endorse the call for the Government to take more action.
If we look back over the years, the plight of some park home owners has been raised on many occasions and amendments have been made to legislation. However, some of the worst problems have not been addressed. I was interested to read the Adjournment debate initiated by the former Member for Suffolk Coastal in March 2009. He said:
"I have rarely been as angry about a matter as I am about this case...most of us came into Parliament to oppose bullying. Deep down, what we dislike most is those who are strong bullying the weak."-[ Official Report, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c. 701 & 704.]
The issue raised was the buying and selling of park homes, to which I shall return later. The former Member for Teignbridge secured an Adjournment debate in March 2008, which also covered the buying and selling issues and the need for a fit and proper person rule. I hope
that today will be a landmark moment and that the Government will commit to do everything in their power to address these long-standing and well documented issues.
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): At the Lakeside park in Bridgwater, we are dealing with blackmail, threats and individuals who are determined to get these people out of their houses. Surely, the hon. Lady agrees that the matter has become a national scandal? Right across the country, the lives and livelihoods of these people-in some cases the most vulnerable and needy in society-are being threatened because of this anomaly.
Annette Brooke: I certainly agree that the matter is a national scandal. If we consider the spread of constituencies represented by hon. Members here today, we can see that it truly is a national issue.
There are approximately 85,000 park homes on 2,000 sites in England, and 5,000 homes on 100 sites in Wales. Park home living can provide an idyllic lifestyle. Park homes are often located on the edge of open countryside and they provide a useful addition to the housing supply, particularly for many thousands of mainly retired people. In addition, they provide smaller homes with lower maintenance costs and lower council tax payments; they are on one level, and they occupy small plots within a larger site. There is the opportunity for a really good community to develop in a positive way in the vast majority of sites.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I commend the hon. Lady for championing this cause and securing the debate. Although the tribunal will deal with many of the unscrupulous things that those who live on these sites have to put up with, is the real issue not that of being able to dispose of, or sell, a park home? In such cases, is almost too late for the individual concerned by the time the matter goes to tribunal. Sonia and everyone involved must be commended for raising that over and above what the Government are doing on the tribunals.
Park homes can provide an idyllic community, but community strength can develop in a different way on the minority of sites where there is an unscrupulous operator, who may well bully, intimidate, harass and even defraud vulnerable people. People in adversity will often stick together. However, in some cases, that sense of community cannot develop because park home owners can become too frightened to be seen even talking to their neighbours. I must emphasise that the points that I shall make are directed at a minority of park home site owners. There are excellent, well managed park home sites in my constituency, and I do not wish to suggest that all site owners engage in bad practices.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con):
I add my voice of commendation to those who have praised the hon. Lady's excellent work. Even some of the bigger firms that run park home estates, such as the one I have in my constituency, are not above a bit of sharp practice. I shall give two examples that she might like to consider.
There is a great reluctance to recognise residents' associations-for example, there have been demands for lists of all the people who are going to sign up rather than merely requesting sight of a list and people not then being able to take it away, which I believe is the legal position. In one case, there was even a claim that a letter sent to the park home owner complaining about certain conditions libelled the park home owner. Of course, one cannot libel someone by sending a letter to that person if one does not publish it to anyone else. However, ordinary people might not be able to cope with such tactics without the assistance of their MPs.
Annette Brooke: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend's points. I endorse the point about the fact that residents' associations can in principle be formed, but that they are in practice often obstructed. That relates to my point about people being frightened to be seen talking to others on the park home site.
There are good site owners. However, a minority of site owners make legislation difficult and I hope that the outcome of this debate will be a stiffened resolve to tackle the issues, rather than just saying that they are too difficult. I am extremely pleased that the Government have committed to bringing in secondary legislation to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That will undoubtedly help solve some of the problems that park home owners have been faced with and will remove the need for an expensive court process in many cases.
A recent case I am trying to deal with could potentially be solved through that route. Let me mention it briefly. A park home was purchased in May this year. The new owner wanted to make improvements and applied for an insulation grant for her mobile home from the local authority, and the local authority granted it. There is a clause in the site agreement with the site owner of this particular site that any works to the exterior of a mobile home require the express permission of the site owner. Somewhere along the line, the site owner has requested that the park home owner agrees to her home being re-sited. She has refused to do that and the site owner will not give permission for the insulation to take place. The local authority has confirmed to me that there is no technical reason why the work on the home cannot be carried out in its current position. The tribunal offers the opportunity for both sides to put their case and for all aspects to be considered. Unfortunately for my constituency, this route is not yet open, which is yet another reason why we cannot delay.
Last winter, the electricity supply on a site was faulty on the coldest night of the year. It was not restored in a reasonable time, and an 84-year-old was taken to hospital with hypothermia the next day. Purbeck district council, bravely for a small council, took the site owner to court. The site owner was found guilty and fined £1,000 with £6,000 costs. We could say that we won the battle, but not the war. My worry is that more bullying may follow.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. The fact that so many Members are here on a day when Christmas is not far away shows the strength of feeling about this issue among constituents and their MPs. I entirely understand what she says about bullying following comments made by residents of Palma park, a park home site in my constituency. The hon. Lady talked about cold nights;
in my constituency, the local site owner allowed the gas to run out, which meant that on one of the coldest nights of the year the residents did not have any fuel. The hon. Lady also mentioned the spirit of community in adversity. At the moment, the residents are having to get together to clear the cesspit because the owner will not do so. I entirely agree that this situation cannot be allowed to continue for the many thousands of park home owners across the country.
Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She and I work well in many other areas, and I pay tribute to her work on this. We need not only justice for park home owners in their campaign but confidence for people who may think about living in park homes in future but might be terrified of doing so. In my constituency, we often hear about the idea of affordable housing, whatever that means in practice, but these are, in many cases, truly affordable homes. Many people who could have the idyllic lifestyle that park homes can afford may be terrified about moving into that environment because of some of the things that are being mentioned. I hope that that will be one of the things that comes out of this debate.
Somebody said to me that we could make a comparison with the employment of a warden at an elderly persons' dwelling site, because such a warden would be required to have certain characteristics. I am not suggesting that a site owner equates to a warden in any way, but the fit-and-proper-person rule should be taken into account.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I welcome this debate; I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it and on her tireless work on the matter. Does she recognise that there are concerns about "fit and proper person" criteria given, for example, the utter failure of the Football Association to make them mean anything? Does she agree that the Government must spell out exactly what those criteria are?
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not pretending that this is easy to achieve, but I am trying to get a clear timetable to make progress on it. There is already work in progress. The previous Government had a statutory instrument ready to run, so some consultation has already taken place. We have the tribunal coming on board. That will provide evidence when people bring their cases about fit and proper persons and enable us to work together on all the issues that are arising.
I want to concentrate on malpractice in the buying and selling of park homes. In 2009, I presented a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue that aimed to prevent unjustified interference by a site owner when residents sell their park home. A park home site owner might reasonably wish to meet a prospective buyer, or at least
to have a reference supplied, but an interview without the seller or an independent witness present can provide opportunities for rogue site owners to make misleading or untrue statements. Examples of such statements from across the country include: "The home is in poor condition"; "The home is not worth the price you're paying"; "The home will have to be moved to another pitch next year"; "I have a right to ask the court to let me take the home off in five years"; and "The park is being developed and the home will have to be moved."
Alternatively, the prospective buyer might be intimidated by real or implied threats and not want to be involved with the site owner in any way. The prospective buyer might understandably decide that he or she does not want to live on a park run in such a way, and/or by such an unpleasant person, and the sale will fall through. After that has been repeated a few times, the seller eventually sells the home to the site owner for a token sum. In each case, there are no witnesses and the prospective buyer is usually unwilling to give a witness statement, as he or she simply wants to get away from the park as quickly as possible. The seller does not usually go to court because there is no witness statement and the buyer is lost anyway.
The incentive for the site owner is to buy the home for a small sum, remove it from the park, site a new and possibly bigger home on the pitch, and sell it, thereby making a clear profit of perhaps £100,000. Rogue site owners currently have the ability to sabotage sales and can rely on the fact that many people who move to park homes are frail, vulnerable, elderly and easily intimidated. It seems reasonable for a site owner to be able to check out a prospective buyer, but how can we stop the abuse and possible fraud currently taking place? My Bill suggested that there should be an independent witness present at such meetings. However, that would not tackle phone conversations, so I can see that this is quite complicated.
In one case, constituents of mine were offered £81,000 by a prospective purchaser on the open market. The site owner had made an earlier offer of £15,000. A meeting took place between the prospective buyer and the site owner, who wrote to my constituent on 4 October 2007 to say:
"Thank you for your letter...introducing the above young lady to me and seeking my approval for her to buy the above home. Since taking over the park in 1999 we have always promoted the location as a retirement one for people over the age of 55. With that in mind I am unable to agree to"
"purchasing your home".
"Since taking over the Park in 1999 we have always promoted the location as a retirement one for people over the age of 55. My legal advisors have informed that this should be formalised within the Park Rules and I now write to advise you of the addition of the following rule...The Park is for retired/semi retired persons over the age of 55."
"In the event of anyone disagreeing with this rule please let me have your written objection within 28 days of the date of this letter."
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): While I entirely agree with the need to find a better solution for the buying and selling of park homes, we also need something to help with dispute resolution. In my constituency, I came across a situation regarding residents wishing to insulate their park homes, which was being resisted by the site owner on grounds of the aesthetics of the park. I looked at that and saw that there were arguments in both directions. I then discovered that there was a conflict of interest because the owner was supplying gas to the residents at a premium price. This raises enormous questions. We need a dispute resolution system to deal with such ongoing problems that will give confidence to park home owners and certainty to operators about how they can act with regard to the residents.
Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. As he says, certainty and a clear understanding of the rules, and a requirement not to change them overnight, would be a big step forward. The residential property tribunal will enable both sides to put their case. I do not believe that it will solve the problem with buying and selling, but it is definitely a first step, and this debate will ensure that the next steps go ahead subsequently.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady. There were debates on this matter in the Parliament before she was elected, which were secured by the former Member for Bridgend, Win Griffiths, who had Trecco bay in his constituency. She follows a fine tradition. The big problem is the conflict of interests. The main interest of many site owners is selling new properties. That drives every other decision and informs the way they deal with people. That is why they invent new rules every six or 12 months that make it possible for them to sell another property for £80,000, £90,000, £100,000 or £120,000.
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is probably time for me to be balanced. We must accept that the site owner needs a return on their capital to invest in the park and make it a good place to live. We need to get the right balance in the legislation that allows for investment, while ensuring that no extortionate demands are made of people. I think that the House has the will to make that happen.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): May I add to the bouquets under which my hon. Friend is being buried for securing this debate? I also acknowledge the Backbench Business Committee for sponsoring the debate. We are bringing Parliament closer to the people by debating the issues that concern them. Does she agree that reasonable, respectable park owners have nothing to worry about in the extension of the rights of park home residents, because residents want to have sensible rules about their ground rent and maintenance requirements to ensure that their communities are strong and safe?
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): My hon. Friend not only has huge support today-all of us who attended the lobby pledged to help her take these matters beyond this debate-but if the motion is passed, there is a general will that the Communities and Local Government Committee should be asked to consider this matter. If it takes evidence, there is a willingness to help her and the Government to legislate on all the issues together, not just on the narrow matter that is in the pipeline. I want her to know that we want the law changed to cover all the abuses to which she has alluded.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and underline the comments that have been made by all hon. Members about her work. The shift from the county court to the tribunal is important, but many people will face difficulty in using the tribunal process, given that legal aid is not generally available for tribunal services. Does she agree that strong guidance is needed to provide understanding for those who want to use the tribunal process?
Annette Brooke: There was an enlightening presentation on the future tribunal service at the mobile homes all-party parliamentary group. We were reassured that the process should not cost a great deal of money for the ordinary person and that the cases and outcomes would be published. It would be extremely useful if those were published on the internet, because that would provide evidence for the next stage of legislation. My main concern is that the right to go to a tribunal will not solve the fundamental problems, because potential purchasers will just disappear when the difficulties are raised.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for her great generosity in giving way to so many hon. Members in such a short space of time. The current court process can be prohibitively expensive and many unscrupulous site owners delay in the courts to thwart those who are pursuing them. Does she agree that it is fundamental and vital that the tribunal processes cases swiftly and mediates without delay in all cases?
I shall return to the example that I was giving. We went to the police, because it is a case of fraud. There were enormous difficulties in getting the police to accept that it was not just a civil matter. We now have a clear understanding with Dorset police and matters have moved forward. The case was eventually taken up, although not wholeheartedly. It was not pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service. Even though there are clear examples of fraud, it is difficult to deal with them as such.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on bringing this matter to the House. I welcome and support her acknowledgement of the role of Lord Ted Graham, who has done magnificent work over many years on this difficult subject.
There are a number of park home sites in my constituency. I lost one and gained one as a result of the boundary changes at the last election. The one that I lost was in extremely good order, whereas the one that I gained is frankly a disgrace. The owner has persistently refused to maintain standards at a level that I regard as necessary for human safety. The electricity supply cabinets are his property, not that of the park home owners. He charges through the nose for the use of the meters, and yet they are unsafe. There has been a circular argument between the site owner, the householders, the local authority and various regulators about who is responsible. I have no doubt that the park owner is responsible. He provides the services at a rip-off price to residents, so he is responsible for ensuring that those services are provided in the manner that would be expected under any other leasehold arrangement. Many hon. Members live in properties that have leasehold arrangements and we should draw many parallels from the standards that we expect. That ought to be the point of guidance on which the law is based. I appreciate that there are differences, partly because the longevity of such structures is typically much shorter than that of brick and mortar properties, but the principle holds.
I like the notion of the fit and proper person, and think that we should work on it. There are some very responsible park owners, some of whom the all-party parliamentary group has met over the years in their lordships House. We have met people who have had very good ideas about how to improve the relationship between tenant and landlord. We need to identify and build on best practice, and we should support and work with park owners who exercise it. At the same time, we must come down like a ton of bricks on the cowboys in the industry, who are not prepared to ensure that there is safe lighting so that people can get to their homes safely, and who enforce practices such as the hon. Lady described.
Selling scams, in particular, need to be examined carefully. If I own a piece of property and choose to sell it, the relationship should be purely between myself and the person who purchases it, although I appreciate that it happens to be parked on somebody else's land.
I am pleased to see that my neighbour, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien), has just arrived. Following the boundary changes, he inherited a good park home site, although he has an interesting relationship with one of the tenants. I shall say no more about that. [Interruption.] It is one of his more challenging constituents, I think it is fair to say. Am I right? He is nodding.
If a property conforms to the existing rules of the park, the landlord should have absolutely no right to interfere in the question of who the seller can seek to pass the property on to. If it breaches the rules of the site, that is a different matter. That is the same in conventional leasehold arrangements, because if a property has not been maintained to the required standard-for example, in its external decoration-the landlord can
put pressure on the individual living there. A few estate agent or lawyerly-looking people on the Conservative Benches are nodding in agreement with that. Those principles are well established in landlord and tenant relationships, so why do we seek to make the matter complicated?
I say to the Minister that in considering what revisions are necessary-I think all parties agree that revisions are needed-we should start by considering how conventional leaseholders in bricks and mortar properties are treated and ask ourselves what changes would bring about a set of rules that will work for park homes. At the same time, we need to protect the interests of decent park owners and address the challenges that the hon. Lady described.
On the site to which I referred, the owner calculates the electricity bill in quite an interesting way. One resident has written to me stating that the cost of electricity is generally between £2 and £3 a unit, which is pretty pricey. I know that the Government have driven up the price of fuel, but not by that much. It seems extraordinary that utilities can be charged at a price that is frankly exorbitant. If investments have to be made across the landlord's property, it is perfectly reasonable that tenants should make a contribution in the same way that anyone else in that situation would have to. However, for them to be charged for utilities at not just a premium price but a rip-off price seems absolutely wrong. That is another matter that I ask the Minister to consider.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I was under the impression that electricity and mains gas were covered by regulations to be enforced by Ofgem. There is much more of a problem with oil and liquefied petroleum gas, on which there is no protection at all for consumers in park homes. I have been struggling to get an answer from Government Departments on that point. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is a real problem, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider it.
Andrew Miller: I am not sure about gas, because no gas is provided in the homes in question apart from bottled gas. In that particular case, the landlord has a central meter and one can see how much electricity is being used on the whole site, but each property has a sub-meter. That worries me intensely, because he appears-I do not know whether this is correct-to be able to charge whatever he chooses for the renting of the meter, which is a nice way of marking up the price. That may be how he gets away with the price, and perhaps we need to reflect on that detail.
Such little scams, added together, mean that people who are trying to live frugally in properties that are not worth a huge sum are being presented with bills that creep up and up. The House should be in the business of seeking to protect those people, because they are among the most vulnerable. The lady who wrote to me has put her head above the parapet and been prepared to take on the park owner, and I commend her for that. She gets every possible support that I can give her, including working with the local authority, trading standards and so on. However, people in such situations are predominantly
those who do not have the capacity to take on landlords who make legal threats such as those that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned. She talked about a rule being changed the day after a purchase was refused, and in such cases people do not have either the money or the experience to take on the case, so they need the House's support.
I urge the Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) in working with the Minister, to try to find a set of rules that commands the support of the whole House. I urge him to start his search by examining how the rest of the leasehold world operates and considering whether we can learn from the experience of changes in that sector over the past 20 or 30 years. We need to improve the lot of the particularly vulnerable constituents whom we are all seeking to represent this afternoon.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing the debate. I wish to speak in support of the motion, which provides us with an opportunity to raise the concerns of a group of residents whose needs are often overlooked.
Park homes provide an affordable alternative to mainstream housing. Quite often, park home owners are retired and have a limited income. Living on a park has the attractions of both security and affordability and provides the opportunity to build up a community spirit. That said, although it would be wrong to paint all park owners with the same brush as being unscrupulous and unsympathetic, there are concerns that home owners do not have a proper channel for voicing their concerns. They need to ensure that their contractual rights are honoured and that park owners provide them with a good service in return for the money that they pay.
One husband and wife in my constituency have contrasted the service that they received in the 1960s with what they get now. Back then-in different times and with different standards, I admit-in return for £2 a week there were clean and well-kept lavatories, proper baths and a wash house with steaming hot water for the weekly wash. Now, in return for a site rent higher than the monthly council tax bill, the only service provided is street lighting and the occasional filling in of potholes.
I welcome the Government's intention to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That will provide home owners with a more level playing field for resolving disputes with park owners and give them an affordable opportunity to have a say on the management of their site, to ensure that maintenance work is carried out as and when it is necessary and that they get the service for which they have paid.
We need to improve the process for selling homes. Currently, that can take too long and can be drawn out over a long period, and site owners have an opportunity to interfere with sales for no good reason. We should bear it in mind that many home owners are elderly, and when it comes to a sale, they may need to move quickly to fund, for instance, residential care. The ability of site owners unreasonably to drag out the process must be addressed.
Home owners have also complained to me about the high rates of commission charged on sales-10% is a high figure when one takes into account that the homeowner and not the site owner finds the buyer. Quite often, the sale price on which the commission is based reflects the value of improvements such as porches, insulation and brick skirts, for which home owners pay. It strikes me that there is little justification for such high charges if they are in excess of the actual costs incurred by the site owner. It is said that reducing the commission will lead to higher site fees. My reply is that it is better to move to a transparent system in which fair charges are made for providing legitimate services rather one that relies on outdated practices.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the Government's timetable for introducing the tribunal service, and their views on how to improve the sales process to make it fairer to home owners.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd). Although we share a first name, there are clearly some differences in our surnames. I am sure he will get a chance to speak later in the debate.
I add my plaudits to those of other hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing today's crucial debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee, which chose it. The Committee is revolutionising the way in which the House works and allows us to respond to our constituents' concerns in a timely way.
There are more than 700 park homes in my constituency. Thousands of people across the country are affected by this issue, so its importance cannot be denied or ignored any longer. It is beholden on the Government to move swiftly on some of the measures that hon. Members have outlined.
As the chair of the all-party group on housing, I am a passionate believer that every person deserves somewhere safe and secure to live, and that no one should experience extortion, intimidation or harassment in their own home, but that is the reality that faces many vulnerable people in park home sites. In my view, there is a serious gap in the legislation and a worrying lack of regulation, and perhaps most importantly, as has been mentioned, there
is no fit and proper person test for site owners, who in effect act as landlords to communities of vulnerable people.
Of course, the majority of park home sites are well run by well meaning people. However, the House cannot refuse to take action just because the majority do well. One reason we are here is to look after, and intervene for, minorities who face difficulty.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the general election, I conducted a survey of every park home in my constituency. Many of the responses were more concerning than those that hon. Members receive from average street surveys-they were distressing to read. One issue that came up time and again is the extortionate rates at which some site owners increase their pitch fees year on year. One constituent told me of an annual increase of 20%, which is clearly out of order-it was well above the rate of inflation for that or any year. However, that person was elderly and vulnerable, and had no one to act as their advocate. They were entirely reliant on the information that the site owner provided them on their rights.
"in practice above-inflation increases or one-off charges may be levied to cover particular items."
However, the problem is much more endemic. Clearly, above-inflation increases are the norm in sites across the country, and there is no added value for residents. I hope the Minister addresses that in his comments.
Another issue arises when we go back to basics. Under Land Registry rules, there is no requirement to register pitches, so although sites might be registered, individual pitches are not. That enables site owners to move the chalets around and provides no security of tenure for the people who have notionally purchased at least an interest in the pitch.
Christopher Pincher: My hon. Friend uses the word "chalets" to describe park homes. Are there too many ways of describing such homes? They are variously called park homes, chalet sites, static homes and mobile homes, but they are not mobile homes or chalets. They are plumbed into the mains water system and have mains electricity and often gas. If I can put this sensitively, the people in them are very often the opposite of mobile. That should be recognised in the law and in how we describe such places. Such homes are not chalets or mobile homes; they are residential properties.
Stephen Gilbert: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend-I was going to make exactly that point. In a written parliamentary answer to me, the Housing and Local Government Minister used the word "chattel". My broader point was that people who live in these homes are trying to find a better way of life for themselves, but they purchase no interest in the land on which their homes are sited. They should have such an interest. The House needs to define what that interest is and to make it clear that the pitch comes as part of the package.
When we add to those problems utility provision and charging, and the above-inflation annual increases in the pitch fee, we can see how difficult it can be for park home owners to budget and plan their finances from year to year. Again, in my survey of my constituency, I
heard horror stories similar to those told by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). There are increases in charges for water, sewage, electricity and all the basics. Tenants and freeholders take it for granted that they get a fair deal from their suppliers, but park home owners do not have that certainty. Even if they know that they were not getting a fair deal, the vulnerable people we are talking about simply do not understand how to exercise their rights.
Indeed, the draft Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1) (England) Order 2006, clearly states that if requested by an occupier, the site owner shall provide documentary evidence in support and explanation of any charges for gas, electricity, water, sewerage or other services payable by the occupier, but that never happens. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole spoke of the difficulties that park home residents find in forming residents' associations and making them into effective vehicles for making those points.
Many elderly and vulnerable people are caught in a very difficult position; as other hon. Members said, selling park homes can be a difficult process. Site owners can prevent sales by blocking a homeowner's right to sell through a notice to terminate agreements on the basis that the home is having a detrimental effect on the site. However, site owners use that so that they can simply jump in with a bid at a knock-down price.
Even if a site owner does not block a sale, selling might not stack up financially for residents because of the site owner's entitlement to take a commission of up to 10% of the sale price. Many residents who have tried to buy into a dream have ended up living something less than that, but they could be worse off if they try to exit because of the 10% rule. It is no surprise that the rule is resented by homeowners. Many of them have put up with increasing annual pitch fees, and many have added value to their homes because they are proud people who want to live in nice surroundings.
Finally, I have serious concerns about the harassment, bullying and general intimidation to which homeowners on park home sites are all too often subjected. Bullying tactics, threatening behaviour and even assault are not the norm, but they are not rare either. That is why this subject has brought so many Members to this debate, and it is why it is so important that the Government hear the House's concerns.
Andrew Bridgen: I appreciate my hon. Friend's measured language and his acknowledgment that most park home operators are responsible people doing the best they can for their residents. However, does he agree that, in the wrong hands, the system we have now for the operation of park homes is the nearest thing to feudalism that remains in our country? The introduction of sensitive, fair and well-thought-out legislation could enhance the situation by providing protection for both park home owners and operators, which could only be good for the industry, and, with markets being what they are, it would enhance the value of those properties for everybody.
I want to be balanced, however, because I want to welcome the steps that the Government have already taken-in particular, the transfer of responsibility for on-site disputes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That is a helpful step forward, but it cannot be seen as the end game for the Government in their approach to effective regulation of park homes. I do not just want to help my residents to resolve disputes; I want to prevent them from having them in the first place. However, that will require a much stronger and transparent regulatory regime. I look forward, therefore, to hearing from the Minister about the work he has done with interested parties and the recommendations they have made to him.
I end with a call to arms: this issue bubbled away under the last Labour Government-and indeed the previous Conservative Government-but it is time that we gripped it, because we are talking about many thousands of our most vulnerable citizens.
I have been dealing with the issue of park homes for more than three years, and a number of years ago we wrote to the Minister then in charge of the problem about the fit and proper person test. We have to get to grips with this, because it is a scandal. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) said that this has been a problem not just over the past 13 years but before that. If anything can happen in this new Parliament, please can this change be made? We have some superb sites in South Derbyshire, and some very bad ones too. I will not name names, notwithstanding parliamentary privilege, because there are court cases going on and I do not want to say anything that could prejudice them. But for goodness' sake, this is a wonderful opportunity to show what a progressive Government this is. I wish I could say that we have the support of both sides of the Chamber. However, it is important that the pleas being made today by hon. Members from across the nation are heard and that the matter is taken forward.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing it.
I have been approached by a large number of my constituents who have highlighted to me their problems with residential mobile home parks. However, I first want to address the misconception that many people have when talking about mobile homes. As residents, these people are not on a weekend or summer holiday, but permanently living in one place-their mobile homes. These are substantial structures that are not, as their name may suggest, actually mobile. In the UK, we have always stood for the principle that a man's home is his castle. Today we are talking about people's homes. Although they may not be the conventional bricks and mortar, they represent the same ideas and sanctuary of
the individual. With that in mind, I hope that we can encourage a debate that will lead to mobile homes being granted some, if not all, of the same rights that conventional home owners have.
The residents of Medina Park residents association in my constituency have contacted me with numerous complaints about the owners of their park, Leisure Park Real Estate, which runs several parks across the country. Their main complaint is the unfair level of power that the owners of mobile home parks have over the residents, especially when dealing with the buying and selling mobile homes. An owner of a park is currently permitted to vet potential buyers of a mobile home. This seems reasonable enough, because it is important that they know whom they are letting into their park. However, this becomes a problem when the owner starts abusing this right-for example, by introducing extra clauses. That might include telling the resident where he can buy his supplies, what company can provide services for him or what homes he is allowed to buy.
I was told of one case in which a potential buyer was told that she could bring her pet dog on to the site only if she bought one of the more expensive homes. That is clearly an abuse of the original intention of this power. I have also been told that an unscrupulous park owner uses this power to interfere in existing owners' attempts to sell their property. The constant interference by some park owners in the sale of mobile homes-be it through estate agents or private viewings-puts many people off purchasing mobile homes, ruining the opportunity of many residents to sell up and leave.
At the moment, the only solution is a tribunal, which does not give value for money, is not effective and puts people off finding a solution, leaving them at the mercy of park owners. I have been told of one instance where a family have been paying ground rent for more than four years while they try to sell their deceased relatives' mobile home, but are constantly blocked by the park owner. We have also seen, in cases like these, park owners deliberately trying to force down the prices of existing homes, so that they can buy out all or some of the existing homes and replace them with more expensive, profitable homes and make more money. We have also seen that park owners are unwilling to co-operate with residents' associations, often refusing contact with those who participate in such groups.
A large number of residents in mobile home parks are elderly, with many parks seen as an ideal venue for retirement. However, the activities of unscrupulous park owners may disrupt this. Furthermore, many residents face continued intimidation from park owners. The elderly are in the worst position, because they are unable to stand up to such owners-many do not have the required energy to do so. These issues are not just restricted to my constituency-that is evident from today's debate. I know that many mobile home parks suffer from the same problems, often from the same people, who may own numerous parks.
I also know that the solutions that residents' associations want are very similar. We need to change the law so that the principle of vetting a buyer to ensure that they are a fit and proper person also applies to park owners. That is the only way to sort them out. Those owners about whom no one has any complaints will have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being a respectable park owner. We would then need to increase powers to councils
to remove licences for park owners who abuse their power. It is most important that we recognise that mobile homes are homes and no different from any other house in the country, and that they should be afforded the same rights as we give to home owners.
Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): A few Members in the Chamber may know that I am rather hard of hearing, but I have discovered since being elected that in politics there are some advantages to being hard of hearing. However, I will leave that to those in the Chamber to determine.
Like everyone else, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. Christmas has come 35 times this afternoon, with so many compliments being paid, but I really mean it, because we are talking about a real issue. It is a fascinating thing, but I did not know that it was an issue until I got involved in politics and met a number of people living in mobile homes either within my constituency or just outside it. It was only then that I discovered what a complete lack of any kind of level playing field there is. It is quite shocking. We are talking about basic things, such as park owners buying mobile homes off the original owners at anything up to a 25% discount and then selling them on. Like other hon. Members, I have even had constituents tell me-I cannot prove this-that their utility bills were ramped up considerably. It is absolutely incredible. Others have talked about trying to form residents' committees. Similarly, people have been leant on and have not even been able to put together a tenants' committee through which they could put their points of view. It is quite extraordinary.
In preparing for this debate I did some more research, and, having spoken to my hon. Friend and listened to other hon. Friends today, I know that there has been a problem for quite a while. Indeed, there are people in the House who have been fighting on the issue for quite a while. I pay tribute to them. I am confident about the complete universality of where we are coming from today. I am confident too that the Minister, who is a good hon. Friend of mine, will take that on board and no doubt do all the miraculous things for which he was well known well before he reached the coalition Front Bench-no pressure there, but I look forward to that. We all know what needs doing; we all know that something needs to be done. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole in what I hope will be a victory on this issue in the new year.
The really interesting thing about this debate is the huge variety. There is one park home-or however we want to define it-in my constituency called King's Park that is absolutely outstanding. The sense of community in King's Park is absolutely fantastic, and that applies across the piece, from people who have been there a short time to those who have been there a long time. To be perfectly honest, if I had lost at the last election and gone broke, I would probably have moved there myself. It looked so good and there was such a sense of community. That shows the variety that exists, and that is a good thing. However, if all park home owners were similar to those at King's Park, we would not be having this debate. The sense of quality, community and responsibility
there is so strong that we might all want to move there-with the agreement of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, obviously.
The challenge is that the lack of regulation means that unscrupulous people have been abusing vulnerable individuals and families for far too long. It is the old story, but I was having a discussion with one of my Conservative colleagues yesterday on the very issue of regulation-the regulation of banking, as it happens, or, to be precise, the regulation of independent financial advisers. The conundrum is that we need x amount of regulation to prevent disreputable people from taking advantage of vulnerable individuals, but the same thing always happens, which is that the regulation gets so strong and heavy that it puts off businesses from getting involved. We end up in a chicken-and-egg situation, and this issue is a classic case in point. In one sense, the regulation is pretty light-touch, because 90% of park home owners-or whatever the proportion is-are, I am quite sure, reputable individuals who do not need heavy regulation. They get on with things, they earn an honest buck and they look after the people who live in their mobile homes. There is not a problem with them. However, because the regulation is slightly weak, the remaining 10%-or whatever the proportion is-are completely unscrupulous people who have driven a coach and horses through that regulation, abusing numerous families and couples, who are often elderly, in a most disgraceful way.
I know what is going to happen, and I agree with it, unfortunately. We are going to need to toughen up the regulations, in exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole proposed in her speech. I will support that 100%, but I find it so frustrating sometimes. The 10% tail is wagging the 90% dog. It is absolutely infuriating. I can think of some ways in which we might deal with that 10% of society, but they might be a bit illiberal and The Guardian will not like me-which it does not anyway since the election, so I will move on. I would urge the Minister to listen to everything that we are saying, and to come through with some support and some suggestions in the new year that are a little more robust than what we are talking about at the minute, because it is quite clear that this issue has gone on a long time. It has obviously become perfectly acceptable for a pretty large number of mobile home owners to behave in a shocking and disreputable way, and it has to be stopped.
Andrew Bridgen: Because the fact that the regulation is light-touch is now in the public domain, will my hon. Friend concede that if we do nothing, that will make it more attractive for disreputable people to go into that line of business?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, not least because-this is the conclusion that I have come to-a fair number of disreputable home owners know each other. The practice has been going on for years and, bluntly, it is a scam. Therefore, I am afraid that, as a light-touch, business-wing Liberal, I am going to ask the Minister for more regulation, and I would urge him to come forward with it sooner rather than later, so that we are not having the same debate in a year's time. We are talking about people who deserve
better, and I am absolutely confident that the coalition Government, with cross-party support, will deliver on that. Finally, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole on securing this debate.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Hon. Members will be interested to know that there is a blog on which one can follow some interesting debates concerning the residents of park homes. Let me quote from one which asks,
"are the government going to sit up and take notice of us the residents, or are we to remain"
the forgotten lost? That is the challenge for us today, and the forgotten lost are not few in number. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pointed out, there are 80,000 such homes in England, and I would guesstimate that these contain slightly under 150,000 people. That is a large army-indeed, several times the army that Wat Tyler took to London bridge in the peasants' revolt of 1381. There is a sense in which the residents of park homes today are the equivalent of modern serfs, under arbitrary landlords; or, as the Housing Minister put it more gently, there is an issue about exercising their rights.
I would like to join the many other hon. Members who have paid tribute to the hon. Lady for securing this debate today, in which many people on this side of the House, and one hon. Gentleman on the other side, have spoken for this large community of some 150,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) commented that the hon. Lady had been buried under a sea of bouquets. I hope that she has all her bouquets, but that she is not buried, because we need her very much above the ground and kicking in order to take the motion forward. I should also like to pay tribute to Lord Graham of Edmonton. He is no relation, and I think that he holds different political views from mine, but I know that he has done some very good work on this subject.
We welcome the Government's commitment to the transfer of responsibility from the county courts to the residential property tribunals in February, although we recognise that that will not in itself solve everything. I would like to develop a few themes on certain issues and potential solutions that the Minister might like to consider. The first is the recognition of legal residents' associations, to which one or two other Members have alluded. There are two park home sites in my constituency, one of which is Woodlands Park in Quedgeley. It has a residents' association, which has been admirably chaired by Mike Morgan for many years, but the association is not fully recognised by the owner of Woodlands Park. It is high time that it was, and the same is true for all park homes.
"to review the case for establishing a fit and proper person criterion for park home site owners".
I believe that the best way to take this forward would be for the Government to approve the licensing of park home sites by local authorities. This would have the additional advantage of the licensing authority being able to overview the documentation-sales documents, in particular-to ensure that any buyers of park homes were fully aware of the system of remuneration for
owners, which is based on the sale price, the commission and the pitch rent. Those details need to be clarified and spelt out extremely clearly, so that anyone who buys a park home can be aware of what they are doing.
The motion also proposes that owners should cease to interfere with the sale process. I agree with that, but we also need to consider how the loopholes in section 207 of the Housing Act 2004 could be tightened up. In relation to the sale commission, in particular, there is a case for licensing authorities to look at whether a sliding scale could be established, which would vary according to the length of residency by the people who buy park homes.
I should like to highlight some further points that have arisen in relation to Woodlands Park and that could also be reviewed by licensing authorities. The first relates to utilities, and I should like to quote from a recent e-mail on this subject:
"Any resident changing to natural gas from bottled gas has to pay £6.50 a week extra for the privilege. Note this figure is added to the monthly pitch fee and continues for life!"
"One of our residents who moved to the site was paying £106.72 per month pitch fees. This was confirmed in writing...in March 2007...and a letter followed in December 2007 stating that he had underpaid therefore the pitch fee was increased to £140.38 per month. This equates to a 31.5% increase."
That was entirely arbitrary; it was done after the sale, and there is no way for the resident to challenge it except through the very expensive process of going to the county court. That, too, needs to be reviewed.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): On the point about seeking legal recourse, my own experience of dealing with the challenges faced by the residents of Blunsdon Abbey Park is that they often have neither the financial nor the health capability to engage in a long legal battle.
In the review of the process sales cost, sales commission and pitch fee in its 2001 study, Berkeley Hanover said that there was no evidence of excessive profits as a whole, but that the process could not be described as
"perfectly fair, flexible and transparent".
Today there has been a call for action-for what the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole called a stiffening of resolve. I think that all of us who have spoken so far today feel the same. I ask the Minister and the Government to consider making local government licensing authorities responsible for approving, monitoring and licensing park homes, for clarifying the sales process and in particular the commission, for ensuring that the correct documents are issued before the sale of homes, for reviewing the charges for utilities, and for the collection of rubbish and environmental health-a subsidiary issue
which, although sometimes overlooked, needs attention in many park homes at a time when we are all keen to drive up recycling rates.
Today the Government have a chance to help 150,000 British citizens without having any impact on the ghastly budget deficit. I hope that they will seize the moment, and will give our constituents a very happy new year in 2011.
Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): So far Members have concentrated on park home owners who have all-year-round occupation, but we should not forget those who have restricted occupation rights and who also have different problems. I want to address some of those problems.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), I need to be careful about what I say, because there is a court case pending involving a particular site owner. The basic facts are these. One of the residents of the park alleges that the owner sold a mobile home for £80,000 under a leasehold agreement. I have seen a copy of the agreement, and it clearly states that the resident is entitled to all-year-round occupation. However, the resident has now been told to leave the site because it is allowed to open for only eight months of the year.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to make his point, but I remind him that he needs to be very careful about what he says in order not to venture into current court proceedings. I am sure that he was going to do that, but I thought that I would remind him just in case it had slipped his mind.
Gordon Henderson: Thank you for your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that the matter is sub judice, and I will be extremely careful. If you listen to my words, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will understand why I am using some of them.
Naturally, the resident has refused to leave the site, and has commenced legal action against the site owner-who, it is alleged, has responded with a campaign of harassment and intimidation. If that is true, such action is simply-
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am very sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I am afraid that he cannot make that allegation in the context of a current court case. I am really trying to guide him, and I am being advised on this. I ask him to be very careful.
Gordon Henderson: You will be delighted to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was about to end that section of my speech, but I thank you again for your advice. You will have noted that I have mentioned no names at all. However, I will take your advice and move on to another aspect of park home sites that I think should be included in any future legislation, namely periods of occupation.
On Sheppey we have nearly 7,000 park homes, 4,000 of which are mobile homes and 3,000 of which are chalets or bungalows. Those homes provide sufficient accommodation for 28,000 holidaymakers, but it has been calculated that, given the change in holiday patterns, accommodation for a number closer to 10,000 is probably
required. Some of those sites have permission for 10-month occupancy, while others have permission for only eight months. Many park homes are freehold properties, and some of them are of the very highest standard and built to full building regulations. They are no longer holiday homes, but are occupied by their owners for 10 months of the year, yet their owners are made homeless for two months of the year by the current planning laws.
One such site is Parklands village in Minster, where the residents of 76 dwellings have this week received a letter from the local authority reminding them that staying in their home between 3 January and the end of February will be a criminal offence. Somewhat bizarrely, these potential criminals were advised to contact the housing services department if they have any difficulty in finding alternative or temporary accommodation.
To add to this ludicrous situation, the reason given by planning officers for refusing a planning application for all year-round occupation of Parkland village is that it is at risk from flooding. Setting aside the fact that a full risk assessment of the site has shown that the risk from flooding is minimal, and also setting aside the convoluted logic that refuses to allow occupation of the homes during January and February when the risk of flooding is at its lowest but allows occupation in March and April when the spring tides are at their highest, it is madness to force people out of perfectly good dwellings because of a supposed risk of flooding when those dwellings are located slap-bang next to a single-storey hotel that has permission for all year-round occupancy. These residents are being forced, under threat of prosecution, to leave perfectly good-quality bungalows that have full building regulations and energy standards approved by the local authority's building control section, and are being encouraged to move into hotel accommodation, such as that offered by the hotel situated on the same site as the bungalows they own. Such a policy is beyond parody, but I do not blame my local authority; I blame a planning system that has allowed such illogical action. It is time that that system is changed.
Like the constituencies of many other Members, the area I represent has a lengthy housing waiting list, yet we have over 3,000 surplus park homes on Sheppey. In 2006, Baroness Andrews was an Under-Secretary of State in the late unlamented Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and she made a speech in which she said:
"We all know that this country has a real challenge to meet the need for homes from a rapidly growing household population, as people live longer and more people choose to live alone. Park homes have a real part to play in expanding the choice and diversity in the housing stock and in providing affordable energy efficient homes."
Let me categorically state that park homes are a part of the solution; they can help us meet the need for homes. They provide choice, quality and market-price affordability, and they can add environmentally friendly homes to the housing market. They provide a setting for stable, mixed, sustainable communities of all ages and household types.
Mr Andrew Turner: I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend's comments. He says some of these homes are up to standard, but what would he say about those that are not up to standard and where people are prevented from staying for more than 10 months a year?
I agree wholeheartedly with Baroness Andrews, and I am only sorry that the Government in which she served did not follow up her fine words with action. I hope that the current coalition Government do a lot better in tackling the housing shortage. One way in which they can start to do that is by taking note of the motion and introducing legislation to prevent park site owners from interfering in the sale of park homes without good reason, and using the opportunity actively to encourage local authorities to look much more sympathetically at planning applications that seek to convert holiday park home sites into permanent residential dwellings, conditional on those dwellings meeting full building regulations standards. That would be a way of providing extra homes to the people who need them in my constituency.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), with whom I campaign assiduously as a member of the all-party group on mobile homes. As the House has heard, the group has received a number of delegations and deputations, not just in recent months, but in the period prior to my election as a Member of this House. My interest and concern in this area dates back to my days as a parliamentary candidate, when I met and discussed issues relating to park homes with the residents of the Brook Meadow park, which is in the village of Wroughton, where I live in my constituency. A number of residents, some of whom are elderly-they will forgive me for saying that-are not frightened to write to and lobby their Member of Parliament, or to come to the precincts of this House to make impassioned speeches on behalf of not only their own interests, but those of all their friends and neighbours.
An old principle in property law is the right of quiet enjoyment. That principle is well known to English law. It applies to people who live in bricks and mortar, so why does it not apply to people who live in park homes? The reason is simply that there has been only a gradual acceptance among law makers and opinion formers that park homes are not just goods or chattels, but places where people live. That acceptance means that the rights of property-the rights that we automatically assume apply for not only people who own homes, but those who rent bricks and mortar-should now apply for people in park homes.
Interestingly, amendments to the Mobile Homes Act 1983-I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) for his proper intervention pointing out that that term can lead to a lot of misunderstanding-were made by the Housing Act 2004. Perhaps that was an implicit acceptance by the then Government that we were no longer talking about mere chattels, but about places in which people live. Whether that was a Freudian slip or a deliberate intention, I welcome it. I suggest that our new Government should adopt that philosophy when dealing with park homes, treating them as houses and places where people live. The Government should allow those people equivalent rights to those that property owners or tenants enjoy
under the protection of not only the 2004 Act, but the range of housing legislation that has evolved in this place since the latter part of the 19th century.
The issues and problems raised with me by my local residents are similar to those echoed by other hon. Members, and I do not seek to repeat them. They boil down to a few key areas. There are serious issues relating to the sale of park homes, there is a lack of resolution relating to agreements about the pitch fees to be charged every month and there are problems with utilities. I wish to deal with those in reverse order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) rightly reminded us in an intervention that gas and electricity utilities enjoy the protection of Ofgem, and water utilities enjoy the protection of Ofwat, and that various guidelines and directives have been issued. The problem arises when electricity and water supplies are administered via the site owner; in other words, they come through a wholesale agreement via the site owner, rather than to individual pitches. Therein lies a great problem. It does not allow domestic users in each park home to benefit from domestic tariffs, for example. A wholesale business-related tariff is charged to the park that is not as advantageous to residents as it might be.
Another problem is that the lack of direct contact between the utility company and the resident can lead to all sorts of complications. One local example occurred in Brook Meadow a few years ago where there was the awful case of residents being written to by the electricity company and told that their electricity was about to be cut off because the company was in dispute with the site owner. The site owner had allowed matters to develop to the door of the court before he finally relented and paid the bill that was overdue. That is not a satisfactory position for residents to be put in. They were thoroughly innocent third parties who were literally terrified at the thought of not having electricity supplied to their homes. That is an inconsistency that needs to be resolved, and it should be resolved via a system of licensing and regulation.
The same can be said about the water supply. Site home owners experience a lot of problems with water pressure. It is far better, in my view, for the site owners to withdraw from the supply issue and let residents deal directly with water companies. That would be far more transparent and easier to administer.
I have mentioned the difficulty with pitch fees. In the case that I am dealing with, the dispute about pitch fees remains unresolved. That has an unpleasant knock-on effect because, in direct breach of the regulations, the site owner has been in the habit of, in effect, threatening prospective sellers of pitches with the fact that the pitch fee has been unpaid, saying that he wants resolution of the unpaid debt before he will permit the sale. He is putting an entirely discrete issue in the way of the sale of a home. That is wholly wrong and in breach of the current regulations, but it is happening.
I use that example to make the more general point that it is now time for local authorities, which exercise a range of powers in other licensing areas, to take on the responsibility of licensing the owners of park home sites. The phrase "fit and proper person" has quite rightly been put under the microscope. It needs very careful definition, but perhaps one can draw a comparison with taxi licences and licences for public houses and clubs. In such cases, local authorities look carefully at
each application, gather information about previous convictions and other such relevant information, and make a judgment based on all the evidence.
Christopher Pincher: My hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech that many park home residents are not frightened to come forward, but we all know that many park home residents are frightened to come forward. I am sure that he would agree that many of these people do not have assets. In fact, the only assets they have are their park homes and possibly their cars. They do not have the wherewithal to seek justice, so the law must be extended to protect them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made some cogent points about the provisions of section 207 of the Housing Act 2004, which amended the schedule that applies to the procedure to be adopted on the sale of park homes. That schedule has been subject to several amendments and it is sometimes difficult to follow the path that allows one to work out precisely what is in force and what is not. I understand that from the moment a request is made by the occupier-the owner of the park home-the owner of the site has to respond within 28 days to
"approve the person, unless it is reasonable for him not to do so, and...serve on the occupier notice of his decision whether or not to approve the person."
I am afraid that is far too honoured in the breach, than in the observance. When it is honoured it is being used as a mechanism to delay sale for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) has set out very carefully.
Justin Tomlinson: I also see examples in which site owners are trying to get long-term residents out of the site and new tenants in on temporary contracts so that they can ultimately try to put the site up for sale for potential residential development at huge profit.
Mr Buckland: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which has not been made before. We know that unscrupulous site owners will drive down the value of a park home, buy it at that low value and, sometimes, re-sell the same home to make a fast profit. That is an unacceptable abuse of the current situation.
A concrete proposal that the Minister could consider is whether we should adopt a system of deemed acceptance by an owner after a certain period. My experience locally and more generally is that there is often a disastrous combination of indifference and incompetence mixed with cynicism and a wish to make an illicit profit, but why should we allow sites where there is that cocktail to benefit from the current regulations? We should punish incompetence and indifference by adopting principles such as deemed acceptance. Currently, the onus is on the park home owner to seek from the court-I welcome the fact that it will soon be a tribunal-a declaration that the person to whom they wish to sell
their property has been approved. Many hon. Members have asked whether that is the right balance. Are we asking too much of people, many of whom are vulnerable, or of the dependants of people who have died and left their park home as part of their bequest? Should we not redress the balance and put the ball back in the court of the park home owner when it comes to sales? I urge the Minister seriously to consider the principle of deemed acceptance and whether it can be worked into a revised schedule. That would be a better way of dealing with the legislation than tweaking it as we have in the past few years.
Andrew Miller: Let me put to the hon. Gentleman a point that I tried to make in my speech. If the park home owner has maintained the property within the site's rules, why should the site owner have any say about whom the sale should be made to? I have not heard a rational reason why there should be any blockage at that point.
Mr Buckland: I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a balance to strike. The site owner owns the land and the property, and we have to accept that there are many good, decent and proper site owners. That is why I am talking, as he did, about striking a delicate balance. We have to be careful of the age-old problem of using a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut. None of us wants to punish good site owners, but hon. Members the length and breadth of the land keep coming up against the rotten apples that are damaging the reputation of park homes, undermining their viability for the future and, potentially, starving the country of a useful source of housing supply. I regret that I see no other alternative than for park homes to fall under the ambit of proper regulation by a local authority.
Involving local authorities at the beginning, when the site owner wants to purchase the land, is a good way of engaging them throughout the process. Many colleagues will be aware that one of the problems is that local authorities are involved only reactively, when they are faced with a particular challenge or problem, or a prosecution as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, so they are psychologically on the back foot. There is a good case to be made for local authorities taking a proactive role, which is why I commend the approach that Members want the Government to take.
The time for tinkering has passed; it is time for a wholesale root-and-branch look at the regulations. If there is no time for new legislation, I urge the Government at the very least to look at the entire ambit of the schedule to the amended and re-amended Mobile Homes Act. Let us get things right for future generations and give current park home residents peace of mind. Let us allow them the principle of quiet enjoyment.
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